Julia Chismar, a high school economics teacher in South Bend, Ind., was getting late-night text messages from female students she had coached in the Fed Challenge, a competition in which teams emulate the Fed and give presentations and policy recommendations on the U.S. economy.
Conversations like those have been happening all week among many other women who found inspiration in Yellen’s career and the barriers broken along the way.
“My reaction was pure elation, and the first people I thought of were my Fed Challenge teammates, and the women especially,” said one of Chismar’s former students, Clare Firth, 23. “And I knew Ms. Chismar was over the moon about this, because we have fan-girled over Janet Yellen for so many years.”
For all the attention surrounding President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations, Yellen’s selection struck a particular chord with women in economics and finance. It’s a relatively small group, and the field has long been criticized for its dearth of women. Yet for decades, women have pointed to Yellen as a trailblazer — one who has not just shattered glass ceilings but also given the women around her hammers of their own.
Biden is choosing his economic policy advisers during a highly consequential time for the country. The economy is still clawing back from recession, and with coronavirus cases surging, economists are bracing for a painful winter.
Yet Yellen’s admirers said the historic announcement gave them a moment to pause before concentrating on the hard challenge ahead. Group chats blew up. Women posted photos with the acclaimed economist. Yellen’s fans popped their collars as a nod to her signature style.
Yellen’s career has long been marked by firsts. In 1971, she was the only woman in her class to earn an economics PhD from Yale University. Yellen was the only female economics professor for part of her time teaching at Harvard University. In Washington, Yellen served as head of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, held multiple high-level positions at the Fed and was ultimately named by President Barack Obama as the first female Fed chair. Yellen led the central bank from 2014 to 2018.
Yellen has also been credited with influencing some of the most powerful economic thinkers and policymakers in the country.
“I have this saying: Be curious, confident and humble. I made this up for myself, but I learned it from Janet,” said Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Fed, a position Yellen once held. “She wanted to know not just what the data said but what people said. She interwove the qualitative and quantitative.”
Cook said she was first inspired by Yellen’s groundbreaking 1984 paper titled “Efficiency Wage Models of Unemployment.” Yellen and her husband, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof, both taught at the University of California at Berkeley when Cook began graduate school there in 1991.
Cook said Yellen and Akerlof became her mentors, imparting lessons on how economics could shape public policy and how to dive into vast data series to go beyond top-line findings. Cook said she carried those tools with her through her research career and during the Great Recession, “when the economy was shifting and the fundamental way it operated was shifting.”
Cook and Yellen would overlap in Washington years later, including in 2011 and 2012 when Cook served as a senior economist for the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers and Yellen was vice chair at the Fed. As Cook wrapped up her time at the CEA and prepared return to academia, she said she went to Yellen for advice on how to set research priorities to answer lingering questions about the global financial crisis.
In 2013, Cook returned to the White House for Yellen’s Fed-chair nomination ceremony. Only as Cook was exiting the gates did she realize she hadn’t taken any photos with Yellen. Granted, the two always had trouble snapping selfies — Cook is almost a foot taller than Yellen and joked that “by the time we staged [the photo], both of us would have gotten frustrated, so we’d put the camera down.”
“She’s been mentoring me at every single stage of my career,” said Cook, now an economic adviser for Biden’s agency review teams. “I’ve just been so grateful that’s she’s been there and that we wound up here at this stage of our lives.”
Yellen has often focused on the economy’s gender and racial disparities, and the gaps within the economics profession itself. At last year’s annual conference of the American Economics Association, Yellen called for a “culture change” in the field, whether through “serious professional sanctions” for misconduct or simply getting male economists to stop interrupting and discrediting women when they speak. Yellen also helped oversee a survey of economists that found women were subjected to widespread discrimination and harassment.
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore are co-founders of the Sadie Collective, an organization that works to bring more Black and Brown women into economics. They each met Yellen a few years ago and have since been taken aback whenever they have crossed paths with Yellen and she has immediately remembered their names and backstories.
Yellen has spoken at Sadie Collective conferences, emphasizing how crucial diversity is for economic research and policymaking, Opoku-Agyeman and Traore said.
“She doesn’t have to do this. She’s a very busy woman,” Opoku-Agyeman said. “And the fact that she made time to come in, see the students, talk to the hundreds of Black women there and just say that what we were doing is right and affirming our existence — that was really, really important.”
For Vivian Crumlish, much of Yellen’s strongest influence came from time spent portraying Yellen herself. Crumlish, 23, was on Chismar’s high school Fed Challenge team and played the role of the then-Fed chair as part of the competitions.
During Crumlish’s junior and senior years, her team was almost all women. Crumlish went on to study economics at the University of Notre Dame and now teaches middle school math in Tulsa.
“We need that representation,” Crumlish said. “Last year, my students Skyped one of my old professors, and the whole point was to get the girls in my class interested in economics. … I am trying to expose my students to women in the field as well.”
Heather Long contributed to this report.